A slice of Muslim life in the heart of Seoul

A slice of Muslim life in the heart of Seoul

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Seoul Central Mosque

Shams Ahsan
Saudi Gazette

The aroma of Arab food permeates the atmosphere, restaurants displaying halal food banners are everywhere, women wearing hijab and men with beards are seen walking in the streets. There are shops offering Haj and Umrah tours.

At first sight, you feel that you are in some Arab or Muslim country, but the neon signs and display boards tell you otherwise. This is the Itaewon area in Seoul, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood.

The Korean Tourism Organization is promoting this part of the city to attract tourists from Muslim countries.

“Tourists from the Arab region are a big draw for us,” Jaesung Rhee, executive vice president for international tourism, told Saudi Gazette over lunch in one of the halal food restaurants in the area.

Jaesung Rhee, Executive Vice President for international tourism
Jaesung Rhee, Executive Vice President for international tourism

Just a few yards from the restaurant is the Central Seoul Mosque, an imposing structure which also houses the Prince Sultan Islamic School.

Prince Sultan Islamic School
Prince Sultan Islamic School

It was Friday so the area was bustling with Muslims: Koreans and foreigners.

There are 35,000 ethnic Korean Muslims, A Rahman Lee, Ju-Hwa, imam of the mosque run by the Korea Muslim Federation, told Saudi Gazette.

A Rahman Lee, Ju-Hwa, Imam of Seoul Central Mosque
A Rahman Lee, Ju-Hwa, Imam of Seoul Central Mosque

There are 15 mosques and 60 musallals (makeshift mosques) in South Korea, where Islam came just after the Korean War, the imam said.

After the Korean War, Turkish soldiers were posted to the region as peacekeepers in 1955. They introduced Islam to Koreans.

Slowly and gradually Islam spread in Korea where about 50 percent of the people say that they do not follow any religion.

Most of the youngsters that Saudi Gazette met in Seoul said that they have no religious beliefs.

Hwang, Jeong Ho, who works at the AJU News Corporation, said he used to practice Christianity, but now he does not follow any religion. The same was the case with Jae Yoon Lee, an interpreter and a translator.

Imam Lee, who himself embraced Islam in 1985, said that before Muslims came to Itaewon, the area was notorious for illegal and illicit activities.

“Alhamdulillah, now the Itaewon-ro (street) and most of the surrounding areas like Yongsan-gu, Jongno-gu, etc. are clean of any bad elements,” he said.

The Korea Islamic Foundation, which was registered in 1967 with the Ministry of Culture and Sports, runs a madrasa, has Shariah and halal committees and translates and prints Islamic books.

It also runs the Prince Sultan Islamic School which was opened in 2000 with money donated by the late Crown Prince Sultan Bin Abdul Aziz.

Today, some 65 students attend the school, says Imam Lee, who graduated in Arabic language and Islamic studies from Madinah Islamic University in 1985.

The Korea Muslim Foundation has also been authorized by the government to issue halal certification to restaurants and butcher shops.

However, there are no official halal slaughterhouses in Korea, said Kim Jin Woo, general manager of the Korea Institute of Halal Industry.

Most of the halal meat is imported from Australia and New Zealand, said Kim, who embraced Islam a month ago at the ripe age of 60.

Kim Jin Woo Muhammad Ibrahim, general manager, Korea Institute of Halal Industry
Kim Jin Woo Muhammad Ibrahim, general manager, Korea Institute of Halal Industry

Kim, who now calls himself Muhammad Ibrahim, has been actively involved in promoting the halal industry. He has even registered the Korea Institute of Halal Industry with the agriculture ministry.

He is focusing on developing a three-step halal system where in the first category a restaurant or a business has halal certification, in the second a restaurant or a business offers halal assurance and in the third at least the owner is aware of halal food and standards.

He expects such a halal standard to be in place within two to three years.

Kim spent many years in Malaysia and was impressed by the equality and fairness in Islam. He was studying the religion, but took the decision to embrace it only a month ago. He said that he has not disclosed this to even many of his family members, including his daughter and parents.

Islam in Korea is still in a nascent stage, only 0.25 percent of the population follow Islam. Outside Itaewon, Islam does not have a presence. Most Koreans are not even aware of halal food and standards. Koreans have no preconceived notions. So they are very open to beliefs which are new to them. Islam definitely seems to have a promising future in the Republic of Korea.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent article describing how Islam spread in Korea and where it reached. This article took me 40 years back when I visited Seoul and met Haji Sabri souh president of Korean Muslim federation and we offered Jumaa prayer in small room . At that time we were not more than 30 people. When king Faisal visited Japan in 1970 a delegation of Korean Muslims led by Haji Sabri came to Tokyo and met the king and I had the honor to be the translator between the king and the delegation. it is something great to reach the level described by the writer. Thank you Shams for making me happy today after reading your wonderful article .

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